A black-and-white photo shows the 16-year-old ballerina at her prime, mere months before her world would be destroyed.
She is dressed in a bathing suit, smiling radiantly while performing a gymnastic split. Edith Eva Eger says the portrait was taken by her first teenage crush: a Jewish boy named Imre. He, like so many others, would not survive the Holocaust.
“I had my 17th birthday in Auschwitz,” Eger says.
Seventy years later, Eger appears frail at first glance, until she astounds a new acquaintance by performing a dance kick that goes shoulder-high.
The 87-year old says her fondest childhood memories still revolve around dancing and training to compete for the Hungarian Olympic team as a gymnast.
“But then I was told that I had to train somewhere else because I’m Jewish, and I do not qualify [for the Olympics],” Eger recalls. “My dream was totally shattered.”
Eger was a Hungarian Jew, the youngest of three daughters, living in a town called Kosice in what is modern-day Slovakia. Her father was a tailor; her mother, a civil servant.
It wasn’t until March 1944, late in World War II, that Eger says Hungarian Nazis came to her house and arrested her family. The Jews in Hungary were among the last of Europe’s Jewish communities to be targeted by the Nazis.
The family was taken to other internment centers before they were finally loaded into a train and shipped to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, occupied by Nazi Germany.
“My mom held me in the cattle car,” Eger recalls.
“And she said, ‘We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Just remember no one can take away from you what you put here in your own mind.’ ”
‘She’s just going to take a shower’
Upon arrival at the camp, Eger said Dr. Joseph Mengele, one of the Auschwitz complex’s top medical officers, stood at the end of a line of prisoners deciding who would go to the gas chambers and who would head for the prison barracks.
“He pointed to my mom to go to the left, and I followed my mom,” Eger says. “And Dr. Mengele grabbed me — I never forget that eye contact– and he said ‘You’re going to see you mother soon, she’s just going to take a shower.’ ”
It was the last time Eger saw her parents.
They died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz along with more than a million other Jews.
But that would not be the ballerina’s final encounter with the infamous SS doctor who later became known the “Angel of Death.”
“Dr. Mengele came to the barracks and wanted to be entertained,” Eger says.
Fellow inmates “volunteered” Eger to perform for the man who had ordered her parents’ death.
She asked her captors to play the Blue Danube Waltz as she danced for one of the worst war criminals of the Holocaust.
“I was so scared,” Eger says.
“I closed my eyes, and I pretended that the music was Tchaikovsky, and I was dancing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in the Budapest opera house.”
The German doctor rewarded the Jewish girl with an extra ration of bread, which she later shared with the girls in her prison quarters.
Eger says months later, those same girls rescued her when she nearly collapsed from disease and starvation during a forced death march through Austria.
‘They carried me so I wouldn’t die’
“They formed a chair with their arms, and they carried me so I wouldn’t die,” she says, adding, “Isn’t it important that the worst conditions really brought out the best in us?”
Decades after the horrors of the Holocaust, dance is still a passion. Eger’s house on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean is decorated with statues of ballerinas. Every Sunday, she says she goes swing-dancing to the music that American soldiers introduced her to when they liberated her in Austria in 1945.
“I want to have a full life, not to be damaged goods,” she says.
Perhaps that defiant spirit helped the teenager survive the horrors of World War II and later blossom as an emigre in the United States.
Shortly after the war, Eger met and married a fellow Hungarian Jew who had been a partisan, anti-Nazi fighter. The young family moved with their infant daughter to the United States to escape communist rule in Hungary.
“She was very shy when I was growing up,” recalls Eger’s eldest daughter, Marianne Engle. Engle says her mother transformed in the 1970s, after a visit to Auschwitz.
“After that, she changed dramatically,” Engle says. “There had always been a bit of sadness behind her eyes, and afterwards, it was gone. I think it did free her, and she became who she is now.”
Now Eger helps others heal
It was also in the 1970s that Eger began studying psychology. Decades later, she still works as a clinical psychologist, running a practice out of her home in La Jolla. Her specialty involved treating patients suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
“She evolved at a time as a psychologist when PTSD wasn’t even on the map,” says Dr. Saul Levine, professor emeritus in psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego, who has known and worked with Eger for more than 20 years.
“She is an expert by definition almost by having had that experience herself but also relating to it in a clinical way, as well as in a deeply personal way,” Levine said.
Throughout her career in psychology, Eger has done extensive consulting work with the U.S. military, treating American veterans of wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. She has also helped set up shelters for female victims of domestic abuse.
“Auschwitz gave me a tremendous gift in some ways, that I can guide people to have resilience and perseverance,” Eger says.
In time, Eger also become a motivational public speaker, performing a Ted Talk and giving speeches at schools and universities. She litters her Hungarian-accented English with aphorisms aimed at mental healing.
“Self love is self care,” she tells patients. “The biggest concentration camp is in our mind.”
“She blew me away with her extraordinary optimism and energy,” Levine says, recalling the first time he saw Eger speaking to an audience. “She is a force of nature.”
Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, this Holocaust survivor’s greatest pride and joy are clearly her three great-grandchildren.
“That’s the best revenge to Hitler I can think of,” says the dancer, pointing at one of several portraits of her smiling great-grandchildren in her office.